The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

If you’ve tak­en a good art his­to­ry course on the Impres­sion­ists and Post-Impres­sion­ists, you’ve inevitably encoun­tered Vin­cent van Gogh’s 1889 mas­ter­piece “Star­ry Night,” which now hangs in the MoMA in New York City. The paint­ing, the muse­um writes on its web site, “is a sym­bol­ic land­scape full of move­ment, ener­gy, and light. The quiet­ness of the vil­lage con­trasts with the swirling ener­gy of the sky.… Van Gogh’s impas­to tech­nique, or thick­ly applied col­ors, cre­ates a rhyth­mic effect—the pic­ture seems to con­stant­ly move in its frame.” Artis­ti­cal­ly, van Gogh man­aged to cap­ture move­ment in a way that no artist had ever quite done it before. Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, it turns out, he was on to some­thing too. Just watch the new TED-ED les­son above, The Unex­pect­ed Math Behind Van Gogh’s “Star­ry Night.”

Cre­at­ed by math artist/teacher Natalya St. Clair and ani­ma­tor Avi Ofer, the video explores how “Van Gogh cap­tured [the] deep mys­tery of move­ment, flu­id and light in his work,” and par­tic­u­lar­ly man­aged to depict the elu­sive phe­nom­e­non known as tur­bu­lence. In Star­ry Night, the video observes, van Gogh depict­ed tur­bu­lence with a degree of sophis­ti­ca­tion and accu­ra­cy that rivals the way physi­cists and math­e­mati­cians have best explained tur­bu­lence in their own sci­en­tif­ic papers. And, it all hap­pened, per­haps by coin­ci­dence (?), dur­ing the tur­bu­lent last years of van Gogh’s life.

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Comments (5)
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  • Adrian says:

    Dur­ing psy­chot­ic episodes suf­fer­ers often expe­ri­ence very strange visu­al dis­tur­bances, sim­i­lar in some ways to that expe­ri­enced by peo­ple hav­ing tak­en drugs like lsd. Migraine suf­fer­ers also. There’s evi­dence (sor­ry no refs!) that the under­ly­ing visu­al pro­cess­ing of the brain, nor­mal­ly not vis­i­ble or avail­able to the con­scious mind is some­how being made vis­i­ble and brought into con­scious­ness. I think there’s a good chance he was actu­al­ly paint­ing what he was see­ing.

  • martin cohen says:

    They should have shown the orig­i­nal paint­ing. I find it absurd that they did not.

  • Michele Johnson says:

    Yes Mar­tin, it is odd. I won­der if there is some sort of copy­right con­straint which might explain it, although, as far as i’m aware the paint­ing is out of copy­right. There may have been a copy­right con­straint imposed by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er of the image?? I’m not sure how it all works. As far as I know Wiki­me­dia Com­mons has the paint­ing on it’s site.

  • Hieronymus Illinensis says:

    Fahn GAWKH.

  • Ann Rodney Williams says:

    Adri­an, your com­ment is inter­est­ing and ties in with Miro’s “strange” paint­ings: he said that he was so hun­gry that at times he hal­lu­ci­nat­ed and paint­ed what he saw.

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